Radio Canada International, thoughts for the future

There’s a remarkable document from 1994 few are aware of, which 27 years later highlights some astute observations and pragmatic possible solutions to the problems facing Radio Canada International in 2021.

Its dry title “Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications on the Mandate and Funding of Radio Canada International” barely hints at the incisive analysis and conclusions in the report’s 29 pages.

The Senate Committee’s decision to examine and report on Radio Canada International came about because of the efforts of a Progressive Conservative Senator, Finlay MacDonald, and a Liberal Senator, Raymond Perrault. It came after the failed attempt by the CBC to shut down RCI in 1990 and the service’s budget cut of 50 percent in 1991, which eliminated half the language services and about half of the staff of 200.

In an overview of the history of the international service, the Senate report very quickly highlighted the Fowler Commission on Broadcasting of 1965, its recommendation that the international service be called Radio Canada International (it was in 1972), and the fact that the Commission saw the need for expanding the services of the international service:

Broadcasting to overseas audiences is still, and will always be, an indirect aid to Canadian foreign policy. But it is also a direct means to other important ends: the projection abroad of a Canadian image that reflects the nature of the country and its people, their policies, beliefs, and tastes

The Senate report did not mince words in describing the situation facing Radio Canada International after the 1991 budget cut:

RCI’s limited funding as set out in its post-1991 budget is hampering its ability to adapt to this changing environment, and no doubt RCI’s market share is eroding on this basis. All told, the Committee finds that stakeholder estimates of 11 million listeners lost due to these funding cutbacks do not seem unreasonable.

While these estimates of lost audiences remain debatable, the loss in Canada’s prestige around the world is not.

It’s strange to see how current some of the observations of witnesses to the inquiry were. From the Business Council on National Issues:

In an era of globalization and international communication, it is essential to maintain a strong Canadian voice abroad and to provide a “window”, if you will, on Canadian issues, perspectives, institutions and initiatives.

When the Senate report deals with the mandate of Radio Canada International it goes straight to the heart of many of the difficulties faced by RCI, particularly in its relationship with the CBC:

Thus the Committee feels that the mandate is too fungible and subject to too much interpretation. For example, the mandate uses terms such as: to provide, to distribute, and to broadcast. The mandate does not use the terms: to produce, to present, or to create. The subtle differences in the meanings of these terms are at the heart of these conflicting and argumentative interpretations.

Furthermore, the mandate uses terms such as: “designed to attract an international audience… “; to “further developing international awareness of Canada… “; and to “reflect the realities and quality of Canadian life and culture.” These terms are very much expressions that are qualitative rather than quantitative. The relevance of this subtle fact becomes apparent with the aid of examples. Non-targeted programs produced by the CBC, such as As It Happens, or by the SRC, such as Le Magazine Economique, are specifically designed to attract a domestic audience, not an international audience. An international audience can only be qualified as “collateral” demand for such broadcasts, and, as such, these programs are certainly not an effective way to attract an international audience.

And then the report highlights the core problem facing RCI’s existence and mandate:

While the Committee recognizes and does not wish to encroach upon the arm’s length relationship of the CBC with the government, particularly relating to its programming functions, it nevertheless concludes that some guidance should be provided to the CBC by the government in terms of its international service as entitled under subsection 46(2) of the Broadcasting Act.

The Committee recommends that the government ask the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to review the mandate of its international broadcasting service in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada with a view to clarifying and strengthening it. This review would consider the inclusion in the mandate of an obligation on the part of Radio Canada International to produce and create English and French language programs to be broadcast to all mandated geographic regions, prioritizing these regions to include countries such as Japan, Germany, and China.

After outlining some of the issues in the organizational structure of Radio Canada International and its relationship with the CBC and, at the time, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (FAIT), the Senate report concludes “the objectives of RCI are more consistent and compatible with the foreign and trade policy objectives of FAIT than that of the cultural policy objectives of the CBC. “

But it also concludes “something lacking in the present organization of RCI between the CBC and FAIT. The simultaneous withdrawal of service from Japan and Central Europe, in particular Germany, creates a vacuum in broad information dissemination to these geographic areas. The end of RCI transmissions to these key trading markets to Canada is contributing to a growing gap in public awareness of Canada…” And so it recommends the establishment of an Advisory Council to Radio Canada International with members from the Canadian community with specialized knowledge of international affairs, trade or communication which would report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

When the Senate report addresses the issue of government funding of Radio Canada International it immediately raised the most important issue:

An unfortunate fact of international broadcasting is that the listening audience is not resident of the broadcasting company’s home country and, thus, a political constituency promoting these vital services does not form to make sure that government officials and politicians take notice of their interests. International broadcasting, therefore, is a “pure” public good with no highly visible or vocal political base. This problem appears to be more serious in Canada than elsewhere.

The Committee believes that the previous recommendation to establish an Advisory Council on RCI affairs and to have it report the Minister of FAIT would to some extent address this problem in the future.

While recognizing the funding problems of Radio Canada International, the Senate report praised the way RCI was run:

The Committee concludes that RCI is run effectively within its budgetary constraint and represents money well spent, but is underfunded…

The Committee also feels that the current funding arrangement must be modified to provide for better planning of these services. The Committee concludes that RCI executives and officers require a longer funding time horizon.

The Senate report recommended that funding to RCI be restored at its 1990 level so that the seven languages dropped in 1991 would be restored, and ended with the intention to follow up:

It is the intention of the Committee to follow-up on the implementation of its recommendations to the government. In February 1995, the Committee will invite the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and his officials to respond to it and to indicate to the Committee the actions taken and planned to be taken (with a time schedule for implementation) by his Department on these matters.

But in 1995, CBC again tried to shut down Radio Canada International, saying it did not have the budget for the international service. The government stepped in with funding. The same scenario was repeated in 1996.

The Senate Committee’s recommendations were never implemented.

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Please note: The RCI Action Committee does not necessarily agree with all of the recommendations of this Senate report, but it is an important report to be considered in any assessment of the future role and organization of Radio Canada International.

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Article by Admin RCI Action Committee Website

Wojtek Gwiazda has been the spokesperson for the RCI Action Committee since 1991. The Committee is supported and funded by the union that represents almost all RCI employees: the Syndicat des travailleuses et travailleurs de Radio-Canada (STTRC formerly SCRC). E-mail: wojtekrciaction@gmail.com Read 105 articles by Admin RCI Action Committee Website
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